Olympic truth and reconciliation

While other men of privilege across North America have been forced to resign over allegations of improper conduct, John Furlong continues to act as an ambassador for Canada's Olympic movement



As Canada wrapped up its most successful winter Olympics in history this past weekend, an open secret continues to tarnish Own The Podium (OTP), the government-funded agency that supports Canadian athletes, and its chair, John Furlong.

While other men of privilege across North America have been forced to resign over allegations of sexual harassment and improper conduct, including the federal Minister of Sport Kent Hehr, Furlong continues to act as an ambassador for the Olympic movement – despite the fact that dozens of First Nations people have alleged he abused them physically and mentally in the 1970s during his days as a missionary teacher at Immaculata Elementary School, a Catholic-run day school in northern British Columbia’s Burns Lake.

This week, Furlong will be a keynote speaker at the Ontario Soccer Summit being hosted by Soccer Canada and Soccer Ontario, the national and provincial organizations representing the beautiful game, at Seneca College March 2-4.

The Summit’s presenting partner is Respect in Sport, the organization founded by former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy after his junior ice hockey coach, Graham James, was convicted on multiple sexual abuse charges.

The Soccer Summit venue is named after the Seneca Nation, who once lived and thrived on the land surrounding the southern Great Lakes and its tributaries until virtually all was stolen, including generations of children who were forcibly taken to residential and day schools.

Seneca’s director of student life, Mark Solomon, says Seneca has no role in the Summit. He says Ontario Soccer rented campus facilities during reading week.

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On the day Patrick Brown resigned as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario over sexual misconduct allegations, Premier Kathleen Wynne stated, “I believe victims when they come forward. It’s really, really important that we understand how deeply troubling this is to human beings, to people.”

Wynne’s office and the Ministry of Sport say there’s a Sport Recognition Policy that Ontario Soccer must abide by, along with Canada Soccer’s policies on inclusion, ethics and harassment in order to qualify for funding. They won’t say whether Ontario Soccer has contravened those policies by inviting Furlong to participate in the Soccer Summit.

When asked about that decision, Ontario Soccer and Respect in Sport sent a joint response.

It reads, in part, that “While Ontario Soccer is aware that allegations were made about Mr. Furlong in the past, those allegations were at the centre of a court case involving defamation allegations against Mr. Furlong. Mr. Furlong was the successful party in every respect. Ontario Soccer looks forward to having Mr. Furlong attend…. We are proud to have such an esteemed speaker at our event as we know his leadership and expertise will be invaluable to the soccer community.”

Between 2012 and 2015, 45 First Nations people from the Nedut’en (Lake Babine) and Ts’il Kaz Koh (Burns Lake) First Nations of northern BC came forward to me with statements (nine of them sworn affidavits) alleging Furlong physically and mentally abused them or they witnessed Furlong abusing others. The allegations were published in the Vancouver weekly the Georgia Straight in 2012. Furlong initiated libel suits (both of which would later be dropped.)

Three of Furlong’s accusers filed separate civil suits against him. One was dropped for personal reasons, and the other two dismissed.

All affidavits and statements from the First Nations were disallowed by Justice Catherine Wedge of the BC Supreme Court in a libel suit I filed against Furlong.

The finding led the Nedut’en to file an official complaint on the ruling with the Canadian Judicial Council (CJC). The complaint alleges 25 errors and assumptions made by Wedge in her decision. The CJC ruled no misconduct had occurred “on the basis that it [the complaint] did not raise any issue of judicial conduct and therefore did not warrant consideration by the Canadian Judicial Council.”

A few of Furlong’s 45 accusers were interviewed by the RCMP, but they found there was not enough evidence to recommend charges.

One of the officers involved in the Immaculata investigation in 2012 – Superintendent Paul Richards – occupied a senior position in the Olympic Integrated Security Unit during the 2010 games in Vancouver. Another, Chief Superintendent Rod Booth, oversaw the operation from Ottawa.

In the summer of 2016, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) passed Resolution 34 calling for “a thorough and impartial investigation into the allegations of abuse brought by Mr. Furlong’s former students.” 

None of the 45 who have come forward have heard from the federal government, the RCMP or the AFN about a re-investigation.

Former Immaculata students filed a complaint against the RCMP with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in January 2017. But the Commission says it was filed too late, more than a year from the alleged act of discrimination. The complainants have challenged that decision.

Cathy Woodgate, who spearheaded the complaint to the Commission, swore an affidavit, alleging what happened to her and others in Furlong’s phys ed class.

Woodgate also wrote Justin Trudeau in November 2015. Seven months later, in June 2016, then Minister of Sport Carla Qualtrough wrote Woodgate, telling her the allegations had been dealt with in court.

Woodgate was devastated.

Her brother, hereditary Chief Ronnie West, is angry.

“You can sugar-coat shit but it’s still shit,” he says. “What I’m thinking is we don’t matter. It’s not a good feeling, but I’m not accepting that. We don’t know the power we have. As hereditary chiefs it’s time to take that power back.” 

Laura Robinson is a former Canadian rowing champion and member of the National Cycling Team. York University conferred on her a Doctorate of Laws for her writing and advocacy.

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